'There is just no way to do this': Teachers worry over school reopening plans amid coronavirus

WATCH ABOVE: Heidi Yetman, with the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, says she's worried about the lack of masks and physical distancing in classrooms.

In a few short weeks, schools across Canada will open their doors; some districts have enacted social distancing and mandatory masks to combat the transmission of coronavirus, others have not.

While reopening plans vary widely, concerns don’t. From Vancouver to Halifax, teachers have stressed the importance of student’s education during the pandemic but worry about overcrowded classrooms, a lack of mandatory masks, personal health and poor ventilation systems in schools.

READ MORE: A guide to back-to-school rules across Canada amid COVID-19

Lalia Kerr, an elementary school teacher in Windsor, N.S., said she wants to go back to work, but she feels the lack of planning is a problem. She still does not know how she will space out her desks, where her students can keep their jackets and lunch boxes, how to keep kids distanced while in line for the washroom and what happens if a child is sick at school.

“We literally are floundering in the dark, and when you’re a person who wants to plan every detail, it’s stressful,” she said.

‘Impossible to distance that many kids’

Kerr is not alone. The stress is felt by educators all across the country.

Jennifer Heighton, a Grade 4 and 5 teacher in Burnaby, B.C., said September will be “chaotic.”

B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia are some of the provinces that have decided to send kids back to school at 100 per cent capacity, five days a week.

Ontario is a bit different. Elementary students and many high schoolers will be in school five days a week in standard class sizes. However, secondary students at two dozen boards that are higher risk will only attend class half the time, and will spend the rest of the week working on “curriculum-linked independent work.”

Read more:
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Heighton, like many other teachers, is unsure of how logistics will work when it comes to keeping students distanced in a cramped classroom.

“Last year I had 27 kids in my class, and if we were to distance their desks so they’re two metres apart, we can only fit 12 kids in the room,” she said. “It is physically impossible to distance that many kids in a classroom.”

Lizanne Foster, a Grade 11 and 12 teacher in Surrey, B.C., agreed and said this is why she feels unsafe going back to work.

Lizanne Foster is a high school teacher in Surrey, B.C.

Lizanne Foster is a high school teacher in Surrey, B.C.

Global News

“The plan was created by people who have no idea what happens in schools. We have classrooms that are overcrowded with 30 students. Physical distancing is impossible,” she said.

“We know how important school is, but we are telling the government this plan does not work. In June, we were told schools would be at 50 per cent capacity — and that was doable —  and then at the last minute, they pulled the idea and are now talking about cohorts,” Foster said.

Foster said she has colleagues who worry that most of her day will be spent trying to distance students and to make sure they are washing their hands properly.

“There are 700 students and nine sinks in school. They have to wash their hands when they arrive, before and after eating going to the washroom. There will be huge line ups to wait to wash your hands. No one who actually works in the schools thinks this is a viable plan. There is just no way to do this,” she said.

Megan Fowler, a high school teacher in Edmonton, echoed these thoughts and said she feels Alberta put together its back-to-school-plan very quickly and without much thought.

“Classrooms are going to be at full capacity and it seems backwards. They are limiting capacity at stores and coffee shops, but not schools. In my classroom it’s going to be me plus 33 kids in a room that is not very big,” she said.

Fowler said she’s been spending the last few months keeping her “social bubble” small, but with classes opening in September, she will be exposed to roughly 2,000 kids a day.

“It’s like the last few months were all for nothing,” she said.

Global News reached out to the Alberta government about the concerns of teachers, and a spokesperson said, “ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students has guided all decision-making around school re-entry since we first cancelled in-person classes in March.”

“We continue to follow the expert medical advice of our Chief Medical Officer of Health, who approved our school re-entry plan,” the spokesperson said.

Fowler and Foster say they would have liked to see their provinces initiate a staggered approach to learning, where kids learn part-time at home and part-time in school in order to reduce the number of children in classrooms and ensure social distancing.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said she understands teachers’ concerns going into the school year but like other sectors, educators are going to have to learn to adjust, as the virus is here long-term.

“We need to get kids in school full time,” she said, adding that having a staggered approach to learning isn’t going to meet students’ and parents’ needs.

No masks in classrooms

Heighton said she’s also worried about the lack of mandated masks for teachers and children.

In B.C., students and staff will not be required to wear masks in schools, but the province said non-medical masks should be worn by adults and older students when they are unable to physically distance like in hallways and on buses.

“All the recent science says that talking and breathing in the same air — if you’re in an indoor space — can help spread coronavirus. So there’s a lot of worry going into September,” she said.

If masks aren’t mandated in school, it also risks the chance of students being mocked for wearing one, Foster explained.

She said a lot of students, especially in high school, may be anxious about wearing a mask around their peers, but if everyone is told they have to wear one then you cut out that problem.

Heidi Yetman, president of Quebec’s Provincial Teacher’s Association, said although she is disappointed in that province’s plan, she is happy masks are mandatory — at least for common areas.

Quebec’s back-to-school plan says all students in Grade 5 and up — as well as all school staff — must wear a mask inside all common areas of the school except in the classroom.

“But I am very worried that inside the classroom there is no physical distancing and there are no masks, especially in a school that is older and the ventilation system is not very good,” Yetman said.

Read more:
Quebec parents file legal challenge against province over back-to-school plan

“It’s almost opposite of what the government has been telling us from the get-go — to stay two metres apart, to be outside as much as possible, to wear your mask. However, inside a classroom, you do not need to social distance and do not need to wear a mask,” she said.

Global News reached out to the Quebec government for a comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.

Poor ventilation in old schools

Another major concern teachers had was poor ventilation in schools, especially in buildings where windows do not open.

Global News spoke with a Grade 7 teacher in Winnipeg who wanted to keep her identity private for fear of losing her job.

“The air conditioning hasn’t worked in years. They keep telling us they don’t have the money to fix it. Our windows are locked shut, we can’t open them. And there are not fans to keep the air movement going — it’s stagnant air,” she said.

She said she’s tried to inquire about what to do come September, but has not heard anything back from the province.

“I feel like we have been thrown to the wolves. The government announced a plan, which basically said ‘figure it out yourself,'” she said. “We haven’t been given any extra money, we haven’t been given protective gear, we’re not reducing class sizes. But they told us to ensure that we’re following the provincial guidelines and protocols,” she said.

READ MORE: All Manitoba students to head back to classrooms this fall, says education minister

“We firmly believe the best place for students is in class, and the provincial guidelines will help ensure they receive the best education possible while the pandemic continues,” Manitoba’s Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said in a media release on Aug. 18.

“Our guidelines are based on Manitoba Public Health and Health Canada directions and students, staff and families can be confident the return to in-class learning is the right course of action,” the statement said.

Lalia Kerr is a Grade 1 teacher in Windsor, N.S.Kerr said Nova Scotia also has a lot of old schools, and if the temperatures reach 30 C in September (which they have) she worries about stifling air in classrooms where windows do not open.

“Ventilation is another issue. I am in an old school with old windows. I know one window works, but the rest won’t slide up. I don’t even know if we’re allowed to use fans,” she said.

Global News reached out to the Nove Scotia government but did not hear back by the time of publication.

The B.C. government has addressed its ventilation problem in schools and said it’s provided additional funds to school districts to upgrade equipment if needed and to ensure ventilation systems operate properly in schools.

“The Ministry of Education has provided school districts with new technical guidelines and checklists developed by industry experts to help adhere to these guidelines,” a spokesperson told Global News.

Alberta’s government told Global News that in the spring, school authorities received $250 million in “accelerated capital maintenance and renewal funding, of which $15 million was allocated for COVID-19-specific infrastructure upgrades,” such as ventilation repairs.

Immune-compromised educators

Danielle Jolley is a Toronto high school supply teacher. Not only is she worried about the upcoming school year for school staff, parents and kids, but she’s also worried about her own health.

Jolley has a genetic kidney disease, meaning she is immune-compromised and considered high-risk during the coronavirus pandemic. If she goes into schools, she is putting her life on the line.

She’s hoping to find teaching work online, but even though the school year is only a few weeks away, she still does not know if there are any positions available.

Danielle Jolley is a supply teacher working in downtown Toronto.

Danielle Jolley is a supply teacher working in downtown Toronto.

Global News

“The school board does not know how many kids will stay or home and how many will go back to school … so are just frozen right now,” she said. “I don’t know if or what work will be available for people like me who are immune-compromised.”

Working as a supply teacher means you could be at one school one week and then another one the week after, exposing yourself and children to coronavirus, leaving Jolley in a difficult situation.

“Schools are vital in our community, but we have to do it in a way that’s safe. I shouldn’t have to choose between my life and my career,” she said.

Global News reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Education and asked if there is a plan for immune-compromised teachers, such as Jolley.

“Parents expect educators to return to work in September, knowing that if they are sick, they benefit from the most generous sick leave program in Canada for teachers and educator workers,” a spokesperson said. ” We lead Canada with the most comprehensive masking, testing, screening, and cleaning protocols, along with the largest investment, to ensure our schools are safe for staff and our students.”

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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